I think of myself as someone who reads people pretty well. It’s always a good lesson though to be off the mark some times. I was returning home the other evening from Connecticut on a very full flight. I sat down next to a tall, lanky, dark brown-skinned young man. He looked about 18 years old. He had these beautiful braids that fell around his shoulders. He was slumped over looking at his phone when I sat down. I assumed he was disappointed that the seat next to him was taken by a middle-aged white woman. We didn’t make eye contact. We didn’t speak until about an hour into the flight, I sneezed, and he politely said, “Bless you. That was my in. I asked him if he lived in Chicago which was where we were headed.
“Two hours south of Chicago,” he said, in a thick Sudanese accent and with a bright smile. I honestly was taken aback. He went on to tell me that he came to the US when he was 13 because his family was, and remains, in serious danger in war torn Sudan. He and one older brother left behind their whole family. He had not seen his parents or his twin sister in 17 years.
He told me with pride that he is a supervisor on a farm in rural Illinois. He said even more proudly that he had seven children. HE HAS SEVEN CHILDREN! He laughed at my shocked expression. He tried to comfort me by assuring me he was 30 years old, and that they had three sets of twins and one single, as if that would make me feel better! He had married his high school sweetheart. We talked about his life, how loud it was in his house; he showed me photos of his children’s birthday cakes. We parted ways at the gate by sharing our names and a kind handshake. I only knew Elera for less than two hours, and yet he made an impression on me that I am convinced will last my lifetime. I walked away humbled and shaking my head in amazement.
I had made all sorts of assumptions about that young man when I took my seat next to him. Yet I could not have predicted Elera’s story in a million years.
Holy Week begins with a story. A story about the followers of Jesus who made misguided assumptions about him, and what he was going to do for them.
The crowd that day assumed that Jesus was coming in power to take back authority from the Roman Empire.
Riding on a donkey is a strange way to claim power or to make a strong first impression. But that is the way Jesus chose to make his appearance. He told his disciples to fetch him a couple of beasts.
It occurred to me that we have another picture of Jesus on a donkey; the other time he was in Mary’s womb and she was riding to Bethlehem where he was born. Riding into Jerusalem, Jesus was the fulfillment of the good news given at his birth. The palm-wavers echoed the angels’ proclamations. “Peace on earth! Hosanna, to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
It was the beginning of Passover when the Jews recited the Exodus story proclaiming God’s liberation from their oppressor, the Pharaoh. Talk about stirring up the place! Nothing makes the powers-that-be more nervous than the oppressed singing their liberation songs and telling their freedom stories. That’s exactly what the freedom fighters of South Africa did in their struggle against apartheid. You know change is coming when people begin to sing their freedom songs.
While Jesus entered Jerusalem through one gate, welcomed as one with royal blood, the Roman ruler Pilate likely entered Jerusalem through another gate across town. Pilate was on a white stallion with his soldiers in tow, with flags waving, reminding the city that the Romans were in charge.
Pilate did not want any confusion about who held the reins of power.
Jesus in profound contrast showed his people a very different image of power. The juxtaposition of these two leaders could not have gone unnoticed. In fact, the text says that the city was in turmoil. The Greek verb for turmoil here is used elsewhere in the New Testament always referring to momentous events such as earthquakes, storms, and apocalyptic events.
If Jesus would have stayed on that donkey, paraded around for a time, then left the city, would there have been such turmoil, such a seismic shift in power?
So who did the people assume Jesus was?
They knew the healer-Jesus and the Rabbi-Jesus. They knew the one who fed the poor, touched the eyes of the blind, healed children and women, and brought the dead back to life. They knew or maybe even experienced the Jesus who fed thousands in Galilee.
The people announced, “This is the prophet Jesus from that small village of Nazareth in Galilee.”
We all know the subtext of every prophet’s life–he or she is not long for the world.
Jesus was indeed a prophet. In the Temple he went to claim God’s authority.
He drove out Jerusalem’s religious 1%; he overturned the financial tables; he healed the blind and the lame right inside the Temple walls. Inside the very walls in which the so-called unclean were never allowed. Jesus threw open the doors to those who had been kept outside. That’s what prophets do! They throw open doors, straighten paths, smooth roads, and announce, “All may now enter in!”
The prophet from Galilee took back his Father’s house. There was no doubt that the shift of power had taken place before the people’s eyes. Jesus was the new King; he was the new Temple of God, and in him was God’s presence and power.
I imagine it was not how Jesus’ followers assumed that day would unfold.
What are your assumptions about Jesus?
What is it you want from him? Imagine right now that you are on the side of that road. What do you hope to receive from the One riding through the narrow gate? What does it mean to follow that One to the Temple… and then to the cross?
Maybe you’ve never considered the sobering truth that a commitment to Christ could possibly lead to suffering; or worse, death.
We call ourselves a communion of martyrs and saints, after all.
I heard about one of the largest and fastest growing mega-churches in the world; it started in 1981 and has branches in 34 countries already. It is called the Winner’s Church, and according to its leaders, it lives by a motto that comes from America’s religious culture. It is: “Be happy. Be successful. Join the winners.”
People flock to a promise of happiness. We are obsessed by the hope of happiness. David Brooks in the New York Times this past week wrote that in one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.
Is happiness what we want? Is it for us to be happy that Jesus came—so that we could be winners? I wonder, does the Winner’s Church read the passion story each year? Do they read about the Jesus whose life ended on the cross?
I wonder what kind of church we would have if our mission statement was, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” Or, “Those who want to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for my sake, will find them.”
“ Welcome to Forest Hill Church: take up your cross and follow us…following Jesus.”
Who is this Jesus to whom we have given our lives?
Every Holy Week reminds me that the path I’ve chosen, or keep trying to choose, is not an easy one.
Much to the palm wavers’ disappointment, Jesus did not collapse the power of the empire that day. He certainly did not take away the painful journey of suffering. Jesus faced it all, head on, for us.
What Jesus’ death and resurrection did is free us from serving the powers that seek to gain our allegiance.
What Jesus’ death and resurrection did is free us from fearing suffering and death.
We are set free from the world’s power over us—its meaningless materialism, an uncritical allegiance to political parties, its ridiculous measurements of success, or our desperate fear of dying.
Our allegiance is to God and God alone. Our model of power is the One who rode upon the back of a donkey, straight to the corridors of power, and then to his own death. But death was not the final word.
The paradox of living between Palm Sunday and Easter is that Jesus’ suffering gives us courage and power and purpose in our own suffering. Jesus’ suffering gives meaning and hope to ours.
We know the details of Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, Good Friday and Easter.
We go through these stories year after year. Why do this again?
Because it’s easy to assume we know the whole story.
It’s tempting to assume that we know too well the Jesus of Nazareth, so we become immune to the power of his life, death and resurrection for our lives.
We walk a Lenten journey all the way through Holy Week for the same reason that we worship every Sunday. It’s the only way we can shake free from our wrongful assumptions about the Jesus we think we know too well.
This week ahead, let us be wondrously surprised by his story.
This week ahead, may we walk away from our encounter with the living Christ shaking our heads in amazement.
Thanks be to God. Hosanna in the Highest.